In-school play opportunities, academic achievement, and social-emotional well-being




Burson, Sheri L.

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Play is enjoying the moment, spontaneously acting child-like. In research, defining play has historically been controversial, as playing represents a continuum of behaviors classified as developmental milestones. When a child chases another just because they can, it is considered playing. However, if a child chases someone as a game tactic, like defending a goal line, the behaviors are defined as physical activity (PA) or sport. In early childhood, play is experienced in stages milestones from unoccupied play in infancy to cooperative play at four years and older (Parten, 1932). After preschool, play becomes less of a developmental focus despite that physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits have been associated with play in childhood (Murray et al., 2013). Play is not goal-focused and can be structured or unstructured, consist of high or low PA, and use small or large motor skills, and children participate for fun and enjoyment. Despite the known benefits of play, it is regularly integrated into the school day only for some school-aged children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2016), 65% of elementary schools provided and 31% recommended daily recess in 2016. However, Chriqui and colleagues (2018) reported that only 12% of states in the U.S. required daily recess. Since the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, a greater focus on core subjects such as math and English Language Arts has developed. A consequence of increasing school time spent on core subjects is the decrease or elimination of in-school play opportunities to include recess, resulting in more time sitting and less time moving and socializing. Much of a child’s school day is regimented, but recess is one opportunity for free play. A series of three studies were conducted to assess how play related to academic achievement and social-emotional well-being and determine teacher perceptions of and intentions to provide in-school play opportunities. In Study 1, the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) was used to identify and evaluate peer reviewed articles from 2007 to 2021 examining in-school play (e.g., recess, lunch break, and PA breaks) and play’s relationship with academic achievement and social-emotional well-being. Building on the findings from Study 1, K-5th grade teacher elicitation focus groups were conducted to develop a better understanding of teacher perceptions and utilization of in-school play opportunities as the primary data source for Study 2. Five focus groups and two one-on-one interviews were conducted (n=27). Responses from the elicitations were used to develop a teacher-focused questionnaire. Guided by the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) and focus group findings, the purpose of Study 3 was to validate the instrument that would be used to assess teacher intentions to utilize and provide in-school play opportunities the following school year and provide preliminary results. Through snowball sampling, 233 K-5 teachers completed the questionnaire. An exploratory factor analysis (EFA) was conducted to confirm validity. Study one revealed a gap in school-based play literature, as recess was the only in-school play opportunity addressed in the included publications. However, some studies showed increased recess frequency and duration were associated with AA and social-emotional improvements among elementary school students. Salient information on teachers’ perceptions of in-school play was gathered in study two, in which teachers described a desire for more play in school and numerous barriers to increasing play. The teachers discussed the benefits of play, such as attention and behavioral improvements, an increased readiness to learn, and the building of social-emotional skills. Although play was discussed as a valuable asset in schools, the teachers expressed a lack of administrative support and time for play. The unique perspectives of teachers aided in the development of an instrument in study three. Before measuring teacher intentions to provide and utilize in-school play opportunities, it was necessary to determine the reliability and validity of the instrument. The instrument was split into two sections – recess items and play break items. Each section was determined to be reliable, and through EFAs, a valid instrument to assess teacher intentions to utilize recess and provide play breaks emerged. However, the factor loadings were not representative of the TPB. Despite the factors not reflecting the TPB nor its constructs, multiple linear regressions indicated both the recess and play break models strongly predicted teacher intentions to utilize and provide in-school play opportunities the following school year. Findings from these studies will aid in the understanding of the effects of play on AA and social-emotional well-being and teacher utilization of in-school play opportunities. In addition to providing a better understanding of teachers’ perceptions of in-school play, this dissertation has developed an instrument to measure factors influencing their intentions to provide and utilize in-school play opportunities. This will help in the development of future teacher professional development programs and policies influencing in-school play.


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